What happened to the Cattle Drives?

The American West and the cowboy period have fascinated millions, even outside the United States. These years spawned hundreds of books and Hollywood movies, such as “How the West Was Won”, “Chisum”, “Lonesome Dove”, “The Cowboys”, and “Red River”. Yet the period of the cattle drives was relatively short, beginning in the 1850s, largely suspended during the Civil War, and ending in the 1890s due to railroad expansion. In the beginning, a group of cowboys would drive a herd of as many as a thousand cattle from pastures in Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico north and east to railheads. The towns at the end of the rails were those of western legend – Abeline, Dodge City, Wichita, Ellsworth, Cheyenne, Denver, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

The drives faced challenges from weather, Indians, dry creeks, rustlers, disease, and fluctuating prices. Some cattle were almost always lost, and the price per head could change in transit. Cattle lost weight, and a spring or creek gone dry could spell disaster. But the folks back east wanted their western beef. As the rails moved west and south, the target towns of the drives changed and grew shorter. Towns sprang up, and then often dwindled as the tracks moved on. My own town, Newton, Ks. came into existence due to the railroad, and the railroad is still the largest employer here – Train Town, some call it.

In Chicago, vast stockyards were built to hold the cattle shipped from the west and south. These led to slaughterhouses, such as those in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Having invested in building these stockyards, the railroads were not initially receptive to anything that might invalidate that investment.

Along came J.B. Sutherland, William Davis, and George Hammond – these men revolutionized the industry, starting with Sutherland’s patent for a refrigerated railcar in 1868.


Sutherland came up with the idea of insulating a railcar and filling wooden chests with ice. With careful packing of meat in layers and insulation between, the beef could be transported to eastern markets without the bother and loss of transporting live cattle. Davis improved on Sutherland’s idea, but both lacked the capital to implement it, or to overcome the objections of rail tycoons like Jay Gould who had built the expensive stockyards. George Hammond and Gustavus Franklin Swift, Sr improved further on the ideas, and the refrigerated railcar was born and made practical. Fort Worth became a center for meat-packing and shipping refrigerated beef north, and east. The ATSF railroad became a pioneer in the refrigerated market, trying to gain an advantage over competitors.

Within the first year, over two million dollars in beef was shipped. The ranches in Texas no longer needed to make expensive and risky drives with thousands of cattle to far-away railheads. The rails moved south through Texas, and west across the plains. Technology triumphed, and the cattle drives were no more.

I wrote about this drama in the third and final book of Across the Great Divide, The Founding.